Working together to promote health over looks

Posted on December 06, 2018 by Gudrun Ravetz And Runa Hanaghan

Why do we get a pet? Is it for companionship, exercise, creating fond memories? Or is it because of how they look and how ‘cute’ they are? In a modern-day world where everything is readily available online, very few people are prepared to wait for anything, including a new pet. This impatience has led to people unwittingly turning to unscrupulous breeders to source their new family addition, often with little consideration or research about the breed, its suitability for the family, or its health.

Much of what pet owners do with, and for, their pets is driven by emotion and isn’t always rational. But when it comes to their health, “cute” or “cool” is not what should be leading our decisions. We need to be more rational as we are dealing with the lives of our pets and their lifelong health and welfare; subjecting them to a reduced quality and/or quantity of life to have a particular look is never acceptable.

This was starkly highlighted by BVA’s #BreedtoBreathe campaign to raise awareness about the health issues that many flat-faced dogs suffer from, with the Spring 2017 Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey revealing that 56% of the brachycephalic dogs that vets saw in practice over the previous year needed treatment for health issues related to how they look, such as breathing difficulties, skin problems, eye ulcers or dental problems.

Animal welfare crisis

Exaggerated features including flat faces, narrowed nostrils, skin folds and prominent/protruding eyes are sadly becoming more popular in pets, and this is having a huge impact on the overall health and wellbeing of the dog and cat population.

BVA has worked most recently with stakeholders such as the Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG) to try and tackle the rise in the popularity of brachycephalic breeds and all of their problems. But it is not just brachycephalic pets that are suffering from health and welfare issues due to their extreme conformation. There is an increasing trend towards breeding other pets with extreme features, for instance, Teacup dogs, Scottish Fold Cats, English lop rabbits, miniature horses and others.

Dogs Trust, through its work as part of BWG, has seen how these features can lead to ailments such as breathing difficulties, recurring skin infections and eye diseases in dogs. Apart from brachycephalic breeds, for instance, dachshunds are an in-demand breed with their own health issues; as the demand for them continues to grow so too does the concern for a population-based increase in spinal and neurological issues associated with elongated backs and shorter legs. In recent years, the number of these breeds and other fashionable but flat-faced breeds such as French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs being cared for by the rehoming centres has increased by 293% and 136%, respectively. A proportion of these dogs are handed over due to escalating veterinary bills that are beyond the capabilities of the owners, further demonstrating the lack of research done before getting a dog.

Working together to tackle extreme breeding

Members of the BWG have done an admirable job so far in raising awareness of the issue and have contacted many companies that use extreme breeds in their advertising, with several pledging to avoid using their images in future campaigns. BVA launched a guide to responsible use of pets in advertising recently, which calls on advertisers to harness the power of advertising to promote positive animal health and welfare across companion animal species.

Earlier this year, the topic was discussed in Brussels when key members of the welfare, veterinary and academic worlds gathered to discuss the widespread ramifications of the growing popularity of cats and dogs bred for their extreme conformations. The event was hosted by the EU Dog and Cat Alliance (founded by Dogs Trust), Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) and the Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Association (FECAVA), and both Dogs Trust and BVA presented views on extreme breeding with the audience. Whilst it was clear from the discussions that there is no single solution to the problem, there was a consensus that education is at the very heart of the issue and can have the most impact.

Whilst the event in Brussels concentrated attention on the need for change, we must now continue to build on this momentum to work towards a day when the biggest factor people consider when buying their pet is not what’s fashionable, cute or quirky, but that the new addition to their family will live a long and healthy life.

More to be done

Dogs Trust and BVA want to continue to highlight the problems associated with exaggerated looks and end the suffering of the pets of tomorrow. We need to continually educate people that, for instance, excessively long or arched backs, flat faces and protruding eyes are not ‘normal’ traits in animals. If we can diminish the belief that exaggerated traits are cute and quirky, then we can go some way to raising awareness of the wider implications, both in the short and long term, they have on the health and wellbeing of dogs and cats.

As guardians of animal welfare, it is right that the veterinary profession as a whole addresses the ongoing trend towards extreme conformation in animals, which is why BVA has brought out a policy statement on the issue. It provides the veterinary profession and other stakeholders with overarching principles that can be applied across species to reduce the negative health and welfare impacts of extreme conformation and achieve healthier future generations of animals.

Gudrun Ravetz and Runa Hanaghan

Written by Gudrun Ravetz and Runa Hanaghan

Gudrun currently works as a Veterinary Consultant for Denplan and is an interviewer for prospective students at University of Liverpool. Gudrun was previously President of the Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) and past BVA President.

Runa Hanaghan is Deputy Veterinary Director at Dogs Trust. Within the role, she manages the Veterinary Department as well as the wider relationships between practices and the charity. This relates to both the dogs that are directly under our care and those that we rehome.